As President Biden spoke with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Saturday in a bid to defuse the crisis over Ukraine, the State Department ordered all but a “core team” of its diplomats and employees to leave the American Embassy in Kyiv over fears that Moscow would soon mount a major assault.
U.S. intelligence officials had thought Mr. Putin was prepared to wait until the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing before possibly ordering an offensive, to avoid antagonizing President Xi Jinping of China, a critical ally. In recent days, they say, the timeline began moving up, an acceleration that Biden administration officials began publicly acknowledging on Friday.
“We continue to see signs of Russian escalation, including new forces arriving at the Ukrainian border,” Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters on Friday, adding that an invasion could begin “during the Olympics,” which are scheduled to end on Feb. 20.
U.S. officials do not know whether Mr. Putin has decided to invade, Mr. Sullivan insisted. “We are ready either way,” he said. “Whatever happens next, the West is more united than it has been in years.”
Border with Russian units
Russia invaded and
annexed the Crimean
Ukraine in 2014.
separating Ukrainian and
Russian-backed forces near
two breakaway provinces.
Ukraine in 2014.
The United States has picked up intelligence that Russia is discussing next Wednesday as the target date for the start of military action, officials said, acknowledging the possibility that mentioning a particular date could be part of a Russian disinformation effort.
The Ukrainian government urged calm, with President Volodymyr Zelensky saying that he had not seen intelligence indicating an imminent Russian attack, and that “too much information” about a possible offensive was sowing unnecessary fear.
The United States has ruled out sending troops to defend Ukraine but has increased deployments to NATO member countries in Eastern Europe. The Pentagon has ordered 3,000 more soldiers to Poland, and on Saturday said it would temporarily pull 160 military trainers out of Ukraine, where they had been involved in training Ukrainian troops near the Polish border.
The White House is eager to avoid a repeat of the chaotic evacuation of the U.S. Embassy staff from Kabul last August as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. The United States and countries including Britain, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Latvia and Norway have issued increasingly urgent calls for their citizens to leave Ukraine.
The State Department official emphasized on Saturday that the U.S. military would not be evacuating American citizens from Ukraine in the way troops did in Afghanistan.
Russia has accused Western countries of spreading misinformation about its intentions. On Saturday, its Foreign Ministry said it was pulling some of its diplomatic personnel out of Ukraine because it was “drawing the conclusion that our American and British colleagues seem to know about certain military actions.”
The State Department on Saturday ordered all but a “core team” of its diplomats and employees to leave the American Embassy in Kyiv over fears that Moscow would soon mount a major assault.
A senior State Department official said that the drawdown at the embassy, one of America’s largest in Europe, reflected the urgent need for American citizens to leave Ukraine immediately, because Washington has a limited ability to help them if the country becomes a “war zone.”
Several thousand Americans are believed to be in Ukraine, and the official told reporters that while diplomatic efforts to prevent war from breaking out were continuing, it appeared increasingly likely that the situation was headed toward some kind of active conflict. Russia’s large-scale military buildup surrounding Ukraine has prompted increasingly dire warnings from the Biden administration that Europe faces its gravest security crisis since the end of the Cold War.
The State Department said that all nonemergency U.S. employees would depart the embassy in Kyiv, leaving only “a bare minimum” of American diplomats and Ukrainian staff members. Consular services at the embassy will be suspended starting on Sunday, the department said.
A small consular presence in Lviv, Ukraine, will be able to handle emergencies for U.S. citizens but will not be able to provide passport, visa or routine consular services, the State Department said.
Until the crisis began, the embassy in Kyiv, a sprawl of office buildings ringed by a perimeter fence in a leafy residential district, was the third largest U.S. diplomatic mission in Europe, including 181 government employees from the State Department and more than a dozen agencies, and more than 560 Ukrainian employees.
U.S. officials including President Biden have said in recent days that the final elements were falling into place of a potential Russian invasion force mustered near Ukraine’s borders.
“Despite a prudent reduction in our diplomatic staff, our core embassy team will remain in Ukraine with our many dedicated Ukrainian colleagues,” the embassy said in a statement on Saturday.
A senior State Department official would not estimate how many American diplomats would remain in Ukraine. Most of the rest of the embassy’s diplomats would return to the United States and continue their work on Ukraine issues from there.
Asked whether the diplomats in Kyiv were shredding documents or other classified and sensitive materials to prevent them from being seized by Russians should the embassy be overrun in a worst-case scenario, the official said that “appropriate, prudent steps” were being taken to “reduce those holdings” and certain equipment.
The Pentagon is pulling a contingent of about 160 U.S. military trainers out of Ukraine, officials said on Saturday, reflecting growing concern in Washington that a Russian invasion of the Eastern European nation is imminent.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has ordered a “temporary” repositioning of the trainers, who are members of the Florida Army National Guard and have been operating out of a Ukrainian base near the Polish border, to “elsewhere in Europe,” the Pentagon spokesman, John F. Kirby, said in a statement.
The statement made no mention of about 80 Army Special Forces personnel, including Green Beret trainers, who will remain in Ukraine at least for now, military officials said. Those troops are also based at the training site near the Polish border, from which they could be moved quickly in the coming days, officials said.
Pentagon officials, mindful of the disastrous impact that the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan had on the morale of Afghan security forces last summer, had wanted the trainers to stay as long as possible to support their Ukrainian partners.
“The secretary made this decision out of an abundance of caution — with the safety and security of our personnel foremost in mind — and informed by the State Department’s guidance on U.S. personnel in Ukraine,” Mr. Kirby said.
The 160 National Guard members have been deployed to Ukraine since late November, advising and mentoring Ukrainian troops as part of a multinational force.
A contingent of U.S. Marines will remain stationed at the American Embassy in Kyiv, even as the State Department ordered all but a “core team” of diplomats and employees to leave the country.
More than 30 Russian Navy ships have set sail in the Black Sea for military exercises, Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Saturday, in effect completing the encirclement of Ukraine by hostile forces from all sides but the west.
The Russian ships — including frigates, missile boats and submarine chasers from the navy’s Black Sea Fleet — departed from harbors in the port cities of Sevastopol and Novorossiysk, the statement said. They will join other Russian vessels, including amphibious landing craft, that have arrived in the waters south of Ukraine over the past few weeks, many from distant ports used by other divisions of the Russian Navy in the Arctic Ocean and Baltic Sea.
The exercises have added to fears that Russia and Russian-backed forces have surrounded Ukraine in preparation for a possible large-scale attack. The ministry said the drills would include “rocket and artillery fire” and “aerial bombardment on sea, land and air targets.”
On Friday, Ukraine’s military warned that Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east were conducting military exercises, and a day earlier Russia began joint drills with forces in Belarus, near Ukraine’s northern frontier, involving what NATO estimates are tens of thousands of troops.
The statement on Saturday said that more than 140 ships would take part in the exercises, along with over 60 aircraft and about 10,000 marines.
Ukraine’s navy has only a fraction of the manpower. Its fleet — nearly all of which Russia seized in 2014 when it annexed of Crimea and Sevastopol, which had served as its main base — has suffered from years of neglect.
The drills in Belarus, which are scheduled to end on Feb. 20, began on Thursday with troops and an extensive array of equipment positioned near the Ukrainian border, which is about 50 miles from Kyiv.
On Friday, combat medics honed their skills in evacuating the wounded. At training ranges, together with their Belarusian counterparts, Russian forces took part in a large-scale mock tank battle, according to a video published by the defense ministry.
In Ukraine’s southwest on the border with Moldova, where Russia maintains a peacekeeping contingent in the breakaway region of Transnistria, Russian snipers took part in a shooting competition and military engineers conducted a training session.
The live-fire exercises to Ukraine’s south, in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, threaten to blockade the Ukrainian ports of Odessa, Mykolaiv and Kherson. The Russian naval force also poses a threat to attack Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, Western and Ukrainian officials have said.
The government in Kyiv said on Friday that it had asked the United Nations Security Council to protest the blockade of its ports.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on Saturday continued to play down American warnings of an imminent Russian invasion, urging calm and saying he had not seen intelligence showing that Moscow was poised to attack.
He told reporters that there was “too much information in the information space” about a possible full-scale war with Russia, and ridiculed news media reports that Russia could be planning to invade on Wednesday.
“We understand all the risks — we understand that these risks exist,” Mr. Zelensky said. But, he said, “if you or any person has additional information regarding a 100-percent-certain invasion, beginning on the 16th, by the Russian Federation into Ukraine, please give us this information.”
The Ukrainian leader has for weeks voiced frustration with the American messaging in the crisis, criticizing the Biden administration for sowing panic in Kyiv and spooking foreign investors.
American officials have responded that they are reacting to intelligence they are receiving, and that they hope that calling out President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia publicly on any possible invasion plans could help deter him from taking action.
The combination of recent Russian troop movements and the information about a possible invasion date helped set off a flurry of diplomatic activity and public warnings by NATO allies on Friday.
On Saturday, a senior State Department official said he believed that Ukraine’s leadership understood why the United States was ordering its diplomats out and urging other Americans to leave, but noted that some Ukrainian leaders “don’t necessarily agree” with assessments on “the extent to which potential conflict is imminent.”
Russia’s foreign ministry has dismissed American talk of war as propaganda and “hysteria,” and depicted it as cover for an attack being prepared by Ukrainian forces against Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east.
Although Ukraine denies having any such plans, Russia said on Saturday that it was pulling some of its diplomatic personnel out of Ukraine, characterizing it as a response to similar moves by Western countries.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it had decided to reduce the staffing of its missions in Ukraine, which include an embassy in Kyiv and consulates in Lviv, Odessa and Kharkiv.
“We are drawing the conclusion that our American and British colleagues seem to know about certain military actions being prepared in Ukraine,” Maria V. Zakharova, the foreign ministry’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Our embassy and consulates will continue to exercise their main functions.”
Russia’s moves are part of an ongoing information war between Moscow and the West, with each side accusing the other of inciting tensions.
“A coordinated information attack is being conducted against Moscow,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday in a statement that included a list of previous Western warnings of a possible imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine.
It said that messaging was “aimed at undermining and discrediting Russia’s fair demands for security guarantees, as well as at justifying Western geopolitical aspirations and military absorption of Ukraine’s territory.”
Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters at the White House on Friday that “Russia could choose in very short order to commence a major military action against Ukraine,” but added that officials could not be sure exactly when, or whether, Mr. Putin might decide to invade.
As he spoke, Mr. Biden was preparing to depart for Camp David for the weekend. The whir of Marine One’s blades could be heard in the White House briefing room.
“The risk is now high enough and the threat is now immediate enough that this is what prudence demands,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We believe he very well may give the final go order,” he added, “but we are not standing here before you today saying the order has been given.”
Mr. Biden spoke with other trans-Atlantic leaders on Friday in a call that included Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany; Prime Ministers Boris Johnson of Britain, Mario Draghi of Italy and Justin Trudeau of Canada; and Presidents Macron, Andrzej Duda of Poland, Klaus Iohannis of Romania, Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission and Charles Michel of the European Council; and the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg.
The leaders met for about 80 minutes, in a call that was initially supposed to be centered on “diplomacy and deterrence,” the White House said.
PARIS — In a telephone call Saturday that took up where a five-hour meeting earlier in the week left off, President Emmanuel Macron of France told President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that “a sincere dialogue was incompatible with escalation,” a French presidential statement said.
Their conversation came as the United States stressed the imminence of a possible Russian invasion into Ukraine, ordering all but a “core team” of diplomats and employees to leave the American Embassy in the capital, Kyiv.
France has not followed suit, in line with its less alarmist view of the large Russian troop buildup on several Ukrainian borders. It has, however, advised French citizens not to travel to Ukraine. There are about 1,000 French citizens in the Eastern European country, some with double nationality.
Asked about the grave U.S. assessment of the situation, a senior French official declined to comment.
After his marathon meeting in Moscow on Monday, Mr. Macron said he had secured Mr. Putin’s agreement to avoid escalating its threat to Ukraine. However, the Kremlin said that no agreement had been made, because, in Russia’s telling, it had no plans to escalate in the first place. The French president also believes he has succeeded in putting off the possibility of war, at least for some weeks, as more diplomatic efforts unfold.
The statement from the French presidential office on Saturday said the two leaders had discussed the Minsk accords of 2015, an inoperative agreement that was supposed to resolve the situation in two breakaway eastern Ukrainian provinces controlled by Moscow-backed proxies, and “had pursued their discussion on the conditions for security and stability in Europe.”
It continued, “They both expressed a desire to pursue the dialogue on these two points.”
For Mr. Macron, creating the “conditions for security and stability in Europe” involves reflection on the failure to rethink Europe’s collective security after the end of the Cold War. Mr. Putin agrees on this need, even if his desired outcome — closing the door to potential NATO membership for Ukraine — is unacceptable to Mr. Macron. In their shared conviction on reshaping the European security framework, they have found a basis for long discussion.
“The question is not NATO, but how do we create an area of security?” Mr. Macron told reporters on his flight back from Moscow. “How do we live in peace in this region?”
While posing such broad questions, Mr. Macron has also been insistent on the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine and, in the words of the senior official, has repeatedly told the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv that “nothing in Ukraine will be decided without the Ukrainians.”
Mr. Macron was due to talk later Saturday with President Biden, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany and Mr. Zelensky, in what was described as a concerted effort to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine and ensure a peaceful resolution.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken urged his Russian counterpart on Saturday to reduce Moscow’s military buildup surrounding Ukraine, warning that an attack “would result in a resolute, massive and united” response from the United States and Western allies, the State Department said.
In a phone call with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, Mr. Blinken said that “a diplomatic path to resolving the crisis remained open, but it would require Moscow to de-escalate and engage in good-faith discussions,” said Ned Price, the State Department spokesman.
In its own statement about the phone call, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that Mr. Lavrov had repeated Moscow’s contention that American warnings of a looming Russian invasion were meant to encourage Ukraine to attack Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east. Ukraine says it has no plans to mount such an offensive.
“The propaganda campaign deployed by the United States and its allies about ‘Russian aggression’ against Ukraine is pursuing provocative goals,” the Foreign Ministry said.
Mr. Lavrov also told Mr. Blinken that Russia was still evaluating the written responses to Russia’s demands for “security guarantees” in Eastern Europe that were submitted by the United States and NATO last month. But he repeated President Vladimir V. Putin’s recent assertion that those written responses had “ignored” Russia’s key demands, which called for a legally binding pledge that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO.
The Biden administration has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine in the event of an invasion, but has worked with European allies to assemble a punishing set of sanctions against Russia should Mr. Putin mount a major attack.
BEIJING — China has joined the list of countries warning its citizens in Ukraine. But Beijing, which has offered firm support to Russia’s position in the crisis, has avoided any clear mention of the risk of invasion or war.
Instead, China’s embassy in Ukraine warned Chinese citizens there to take extra precautions against the coronavirus and to “pay close attention to local developments,” the Chinese news media reported on Saturday.
“Recently, pandemic trends in Ukraine have been increasingly grim,” the embassy notice said, adding that there had been growing cases of Chinese people becoming infected with the coronavirus.
“At the same time,” it said, “the tensions between Ukraine and Russia have attracted concern from multiple parties, and mutually inconsistent speculation has arisen.”
The embassy notice, dated Friday, did not urge Chinese citizens to leave. It said that they should monitor developments and “enhance protective awareness.”
As Russia faces off against Western nations over Ukraine, it has edged closer to China, a relationship that increasingly poses a challenge to American dominance on the world stage.
Last week, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia visited Beijing for the start of the Winter Olympics, where he and the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, issued a lengthy statement proclaiming that the friendship between their nations had “no limits.”
The Pentagon on Friday ordered 3,000 additional troops to Poland, bringing to 5,000 the total number of reinforcements sent to Europe in the past two weeks.
The purpose of the troops, nearly all from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., will be to reassure NATO allies that while the United States has no intention of sending troops into Ukraine, where President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has been threatening an invasion, President Biden would protect America’s NATO allies from any Russian aggression.
Poland borders Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, a close ally of Russia.
The troop deployment announced on Friday will depart Fort Bragg over the next couple of days and is expected to be in place by early next week, the Pentagon said in a statement.
The troops are commanded by Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, the head of the 82nd Airborne, who was also the ground commander for the evacuation at Kabul International Airport in August.
A Ukrainian athlete displayed a “no war in Ukraine” sign after finishing a run in the men’s skeleton competition on Friday.
Vladyslav Heraskevych, 23, who was among 25 sliders in the event, held up a piece of paper with the message written in capital letters over the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag.
“It’s my position,” Heraskevych told The Associated Press after his competition. “Like any normal people, I don’t want war.” He added: “I want peace in my country, and I want peace in the world. It’s my position, so I fight for that. I fight for peace.”
Heraskevych’s statement comes as tensions mount between Russia and Ukraine. For weeks, more than 100,000 Russian troops and a steady stream of vehicles and equipment have been stationed near the border with Ukraine. U.S. and NATO officials have said that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia appears to be preparing for a large-scale invasion, which could result in catastrophic human costs. Russia continues to insist that all troop and equipment movements are for ordinary exercises.
“In Ukraine, it’s really nervous now,” Heraskevych told The A.P. “A lot of news about guns, about weapons, what’s to come in Ukraine, about some armies around Ukraine. It’s not OK, not in the 21st century. So I decided, before the Olympics, that I would show my position to the world.”
Protests at the Olympics are a thorny issue. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter prohibits athletes or other participants from demonstrating or displaying “political, religious or racial propaganda” at events. But that rule was recently relaxed to allow athletes to express their views in Olympic villages and surroundings and on social media sites — but not during competitions or medal ceremonies.
As for Heraskevych, who placed 18th in the finals, he said he hoped Olympic officials would support him.
“Nobody wants war,” Heraskevych said.
Officials from the I.O.C. later said they had reached Heraskevych.
“We have spoken with the athlete,” the I.O.C. said in a statement issued on Friday. “This was a general call for peace. For the I.O.C., the matter is closed.”